The 3 Types of eLearning Storyboards & When to Use Them

When you’re in the early stages of designing and developing an eLearning course, it’s likely your subject matter experts will throw a boatload of information at you. This might include best practice documents, long email chains, links to various online resources, and poorly-designed PowerPoint decks. And if you’re like me, you can quickly feel like you’re drowning in a sea of information, which usually leaves you overwhelmed and paralyzed!

As eLearning designers (and instructional designers), it’s our job to take all of that raw content and organize it into a cohesive, engaging, and effective course. While there are many different strategies and processes for how you transform raw content into a completed eLearning course, I’ve always been a huge proponent of using a storyboard.

As I explain in my book, The eLearning Designer’s Handbook:

An eLearning storyboard is simply a document that outlines the learning content, slide-by-slide or screen-by-screen. The purpose of a storyboard is to provide your stakeholders and subject matter experts a preview of how the course will flow and how the content will be presented. The storyboard also gives reviewers the opportunity to easily make edits and change the course content before you begin development.

The eLearning Designer’s Handbook by Tim Slade

While this is a pretty straightforward explanation, it’s important to remember that not all eLearning storyboards are the same. eLearning storyboards come in many different formats, and when and why you use each one depends on what you need to accomplish with it.

In this post, I’ll give you an overview of the three types of eLearning storyboards, and share tips for when you should use each in your eLearning development process.

Course Outline

The 3 Types of eLearning Storyboards - An Outline Storyboard - Tim Slade eLearning Blog

When I’m designing an eLearning course, before I draft my content into a written storyboard, I like to start by creating a high-level outline of my course. This gives me an opportunity to see how the content will flow, identify where I might incorporate interactivity, and get a high-level view of the course layout.

Usually, my process for creating a course outline of my eLearning course start with sticky notes, a marker, and a wall, and it looks something like this…

  • Start by creating a sticky note for each of your main topics and align them with how they will flow.
  • Next, create sticky notes for each of your subtopics, and organize them to show where they fit beneath each main topic.
  • Lastly, once you’ve organized your main content areas, create sticky notes for your introduction and conclusion slides. Then decide where you want to insert knowledge checks, simulations, or other interactions.

If you want to learn more about how I organize my eLearning content with sticky notes, check out this post and video.

When should you use this type of eLearning storyboard?

I recommend creating a course outline when you are in the early stages of organizing your eLearning content. This is when you’re still not sure how you’ll organize your course and when you’re still sorting through must-have vs. nice-to-have content.

Usually, when I create a course outline, I’m only creating it for myself. I rarely show my outlines to my stakeholders and subject matter experts. This is because an outline usually acts as a bridge to some other document that contains a greater level of detail, such as a written or visual storyboard.

Written Storyboard

The 3 Types of eLearning Storyboards - A Written Storyboard - Tim Slade eLearning Blog

Out of all of the different types of eLearning storyboards that you can create, perhaps the most common is a written storyboard. A written storyboard is the type of storyboard the most closely aligns with my description above: a document that outlines the learning content, slide-by-slide or screen-by-screen.

Usually, when I am drafting a written storyboard, I like to use Microsoft Word or similar software (Google Docs, etc.), and I like to include some essential elements. Some of these elements are designed to help provide a sense of organization and structure to the storyboard and other elements are intended to provide a holistic view of the course content and structure.

Here are some of the elements I always like to include in my written storyboards:

  • Learning Objectives: Include the learning objectives of your course at the beginning of your storyboard. This is a great way to remind you and your subject matter experts of the goals of the learning content.
  • Text & Audio Content: Draft the wording for any content that will be learner-facing. This includes any on-screen text, audio narration, and video dialogue. This will let your subject matter experts review the entirety of your course content.
  • Description of Graphics: Describe what graphics, images, or animations will be presented throughout the course to help your reviewers “see” how you’ll visualize the content.
  • Description of Functionality: Describe how any interactivity within your course will operate to help your reviewers navigate the storyboard. This is especially important for courses with branching scenarios.

If you want to learn more about what I suggest you include in your written storyboards, check out this post.

When should you use this type of eLearning storyboard?

I prefer to use a written storyboard with almost every project I work on, especially when there’s a lot of subject matter expert involvement. In my experience, I find that written storyboards help focus my reviewers on the course content, rather than how the course will look and feel.

Additionally, I find these types of eLearning storyboards easier to edit. For example, a small edit to how a fully-developed branching scenario works might result in hours’ worth of work for you to implement it into the design. However, when that branching scenario is just on paper, in a storyboard, making a change is just a matter of moving or rewriting some text. It’s because of this that I recommend finalizing as much of the content in the storyboard stage before you move into full development.

If you want to learn more about why I like starting with a written storyboard, check out this video.

Visual Storyboard

The 3 Types of eLearning Storyboards - A Visual Storyboard - Tim Slade eLearning Blog

Between the first two types of eLearning storyboards I outlined, a visual storyboard is focused not only on the course content, but also the course design. A visual storyboard is a hybrid between a written storyboard and a visual prototype.

While visual storyboards are a popular method for rapid eLearning development and iteration, they take a bit more time to get started. This is because you’re working on the course content and visuals simultaneously. Unlike a written storyboard, a visual storyboard is usually created in PowerPoint or even the actual eLearning authoring tool (i.e., Articulate Storyline) being used to develop the course.

When should you use this type of eLearning storyboard?

I recommend using a visual storyboard when you’re working with reviewers who are familiar with the eLearning development process.

In my experience, when using a visual storyboard, I’ve found the review process to be difficult, especially when working with stakeholders and subject matter experts who aren’t familiar with the development process. For example, when you tell your reviewers to focus on the content, they inevitably get sidetracked questioning your use of colors or placeholder images.

I’ve found that a visual storyboard or prototype works best after you’ve finalized your learning content in a written storyboard.

The Bottom Line

While there are many different types of eLearning storyboards for you to use, which one you choose to go with depends on what you need to get out of it. Use a course outline when you need to organize your learning content, use a written storyboard when you need to focus on the learning content, and use a visual storyboard you’re ready to visualize your learning content.

What other types of eLearning storyboards have you used? Share your tips by commenting below!

Additional Resources

Tim Slade
Tim Slade is a speaker, author, and award-winning freelance eLearning designer. Having spent the last decade working to help others elevate their eLearning and visual communications content, Tim has been recognized and awarded within the eLearning industry multiple times for his creative and innovative design aesthetics. Tim is a regular speaker at international eLearning conferences, is a recognized Articulate Super Hero, author of The eLearning Designer’s Handbook and creator of The eLearning Designer's Academy.

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